Remote Civic Meetings — Empowering Municipal Governments During Crises and Beyond

The Coronavirus pandemic is driving significant behaviour changes in our society. Social distancing, reduced public recreational services, remote work, altered travel behaviour and a focus on improved hand hygiene are among the many changes we are implementing. While some of these seem mundane, all of them collectively have a potentially huge impact on our society and our economy. These changes aside, however, we still need a functioning government to make sure we are able to manage through this crisis and beyond.

So, with a reduction in public gatherings, how does local government — which is at the forefront of managing through these challenges — continue to function? At the administrative level, remote workers should be able to function well. While municipalities’ IT departments may need to carefully and selectively reduce previously-imposed restrictions that limited remote access to their systems such as email services, ultimately many civil service staffers should be able to work from home just as effectively as corporate staff can. By leveraging readily available connectivity and office efficiency software, they can ensure that core services and key public communications continue to be delivered.

But what about at the political level? Advanced democracies depend on the decision making of elected officials to provide direction and approve policies. To date, that process was enacted through meetings that are conducted face-to-face and open to the public. While some such meetings can be delayed and decisions postponed, there is a limit to how long they can be deferred, and the meetings will have to happen sooner rather than later. Plus, in times of crisis, there can be more decisions needing to be made very quickly — whether publicly or, where confidential information such as specific healthcare cases are involved, in private — than ever before.

While the challenge of facilitating meetings under these circumstances may seem daunting, the need for continuity of the political process at the local government level can be supported by technology already used by the civil service. Remote meetings are not only possible, but in fact the technology to enable them is readily available and mature.

A Paradigm Shift

The need for conducting meetings while maintaining social distancing is driving a major paradigm shift in how such sessions will be conducted not only today and tomorrow, but far into the future.

In other blog posts, we have discussed how information publishing has gone through multiple eras — from Pre-paper (stone tablets and chisels), to the Paper Age, and now the Digital Age (which we’re actually still in the early stages of) where content is created, stored, delivered and consumed entirely electronically. In between the Paper and Digital Ages, however, were two transitionary periods. The first was the rise of desktop publishing, with content being created electronically but still destined for distribution and consumption on paper; the second was the emergence of the PDF format, with content created, delivered and archived electronically but still designed to be printable and mimic the style of paper documents.

Recent meeting processes have similarly been in a transitionary phase between manually-managed, physical gatherings and fully electronic facilitation between remote participants. Meeting management technology was being increasingly used, but primarily in support of traditional, manual meeting processes. Even for local governments that had adopted remote meeting technology, offsite participation was typically the exception rather than the norm, and meeting processes were still structured around the people physically present in council chambers.

Some of the characteristics of these meetings have included:

  • The majority of council members physically in the room, sometimes with one or two of them participating remotely via tablet applications where permitted
  • Public attendees physically in the room
  • Meeting administrators physically in room
  • Webcasting of the meeting in support of public transparency initiatives, but typically with just one or two cameras
  • Electronic meeting management — if the municipality uses it — will have reduced paper-based documentation and streamlined many processes, but the core meeting itself is still physical
  • Councilors in the room may still stand for roll call and to debate — highlighting the physical and manual nature of the processes
  • Technical infrastructure within the room can be used for microphone control and, in some cases, voting tabulation

In contrast, fully realizing the equivalent of publishing’s Digital Age for meeting processes must allow for the majority of council members and public attendees to participate remotely:

  • All or most council members participating from home or other remote locations, using devices such as tablets
  • Public attendees providing input and presentations remotely
  • Meeting administrators conducting the session from a remote location
  • Single-camera webcasting of the council chambers must be replaced by a video conference style feed with the ability to see all remote participants
  • Electronic roll call and voting on Resolutions and Motions
  • The ability to handle confidential or closed materials in a secure, private manner
  • Electronically controlled collaboration between meeting attendees, including microphone control/mute and Request to Speak management

While some forward-looking and innovation-driven municipalities have already embraced remote meeting participation to varying degrees, the Coronavirus crisis is accelerating the trend and forcing even the most reluctant organizations to accept electronically facilitated meetings out of necessity. Fortunately, some of the same solutions and technologies that early adopters have been using to streamline and augment their physical meeting processes can be extended to meet this new reality.

Removing Legislative Obstacles

To date, many provinces had left the decision on whether to allow electronic, remote meeting participation (and any corresponding limitations) to be determined by each municipality at the bylaw level. However, in Ontario, the Modernizing Ontario’s Municipal Legislation Act of 2017 — often referred to simply as “Bill 68” — had imposed restrictions on remote, electronic member participation in meetings that could have proven prohibitive during the COVID-19 crisis. Effective January 1, 2018, the new regulations forbade council, local board or committee members from participating electronically in meetings that were closed to the public, and while they were allowed to participate remotely in open meetings, their electronic attendance could not be counted towards quorum. With almost everyone working remotely to meet social distancing requirements during the crisis, quorum could never have been achieved under these rules.

On March 19, 2020, Bill 187 — the Municipal Emergency Act of 2020 — received Royal Ascent and removed these obstacles, giving municipalities the discretion to amend their procedural bylaws to suspend these restrictions during declared emergencies. It amends the Municipal Act (2001) and the City of Toronto Act (2006) to enable local governments to — if they so choose — permit electronic participants to be counted in determining whether or not a quorum of members is present, and to permit electronic participation in closed meetings.

Accelerating Change

Even once the COVID-19 crisis has passed — if it is not already behind us by the time you read this — it is unlikely that things will ever be quite the same again. While gathering places will re-open and business will resume, the trend towards working remotely will be irreversible — in part simply because the world will have proven, albeit unintentionally, that it can be done successfully.

While not every role can be served from home, and not every worker has the self-discipline to be fully productive remotely, companies that implemented remote workflows will better understand the possibilities. Meanwhile, societal and employer attitudes about people going to work when sick — often expecting employees with mild symptoms to continue coming in — will have changed forever. Those with sniffles or colds will be expected to work remotely if possible, rather than risk bringing a more serious illness into their workplace.

Similarly, the shift to remote civic meetings will not be entirely reversed. Council and board members will return to council chambers, but having experienced the possibilities of electronic remote meetings, most will embrace deeper adoption and greater usage of such technologies in new, hybrid approaches. The work they did to stay operational during the crisis will bring them lasting benefits, helping them overcome other issues ranging from travel disruptions and inclement weather to future emergencies.

As discussed earlier, remote civic meetings are a major paradigm shift, and of course, rapid change can be challenging. While public sector organizations and government bodies typically adopt new approaches incrementally, crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic force revolutionary changes rather than evolutionary changes.

Even once municipalities decide they need to implement remote meetings, bringing together all of the disparate parts needed to enable participants while offering transparency to the public can be difficult. Under normal circumstances, shifts of this magnitude require well-planned change management to ensure the goals, people, processes and technology are all fully aligned. But since crises don’t allow time for change management, organizations need help from peers or vendors who have proven, successful experience in executing such transitions.

We’re Here to Help

While we remain as dedicated as ever to supporting all of our customers worldwide, as a Canadian company, eScribe is particularly committed to helping Canadian communities — whether they are our customers or not — during this challenging time.

Meeting Manager Module IconOur eScribe meeting management platform has proven functionality for enabling and facilitating remote meetings, and we also have platform-agnostic tools that can help users of other solutions enhance their remote transparency. Whether you are an eScribe customer looking to expand your usage into remote meetings, a user of another vendor’s product, or looking at electronic meeting management for the first time to help your municipality work through this crisis, we are happy to answer any questions you may have.

We will get through this if we all stand together. And once the COVID-19 crisis is behind us, the paradigm shift to remote civic meetings will have lasting benefits. Contact us to let us know how we can help you.